Maria Ressa: Media need a seat at the table | #mediadev | DW | 25.06.2024
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Digital governance

Maria Ressa: Media need a seat at the table

Journalists are key stakeholders in international fora on internet and data governance, argues Nobel laureate Maria Ressa.

Maria Ressa speaking at the Global Media Forum 2024

Talking about the "impunity of the tech companies", Maria Ressa asks: "Does the international rules-based order still work?"

She is one of the most prominent advocates for journalism in the digital era: Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa. In addition to her work as a journalist and media manager of Philippine news outlet Rappler, she is actively engaged in international discussions on safeguarding democracy and freedom of expression, at a time of rising disinformation and hate speech.

In a panel discussion at this year's Global Media Forum in Bonn, Ressa shared her personal experience of online harassment – and called for the regulation of tech companies and AI to protect global information ecosystems.

DW Akademie had the opportunity to speak to her and go a little deeper into the power of big tech, digital governance, and the role of journalism.

DW Akademie: You are currently vice-chairing the leadership panel of the Internet Governance Forum. Are journalists and communications experts sufficiently included in discussions on digital governance?

Vinton Cerf and Maria Ressa

Maria Ressa and Vinton Cerf, Chair of the Internet Governance Leadership Panel

Maria Ressa: First, there isn't one place for digital governance. The Internet Governance Forum is a good starting place. It is 18 years old, it has at least 130 different regional groups. Those are all voluntary. This is how the internet was governed in the past. But it's largely driven by technical people. It's the one place where civil society sits with governments. Not many journalists. In fact, there is only me right now.

The United Nations recently published the revised draft of the Global Digital Compact, a governance framework that is meant to be adopted by all UN Member States at the Summit of the Future in September. What are your expectations regarding this process?

In the Global Digital Compact, the UN is now trying to pull together all the different existing strands. I don't see many news organizations there. Not many news heads. And that's another thing. Why are we not advocating for specific points and purposes?

Even as the Secretary-General António Guterres understands all of this and he's gotten the tech envoy Amandeep Singh Gill there, you have all these different processes in the UN. Tech has moved so much quicker than the UN's ability to push.

The zero draft of the Global Digital Compact was relatively good, but it will be vetted by every single country in the UN. That includes some of the illiberal countries. It has already evolved, so if you are interested in this, you must jump in. There is, I think, another round. But we've gone through two rounds already.

What do you think journalists should advocate for?

The part that really is missing is journalism, the standards and ethics of journalism. The principles are there, but it's in the execution that you'll deal with it, in the same way that in the EU there is the Digital Services Act.

And there is data. But journalists aren't getting it right now. Why are we not pushing to get data? This is part of our problem.

CrowdTangle, the only way journalists along with other researchers get data from social media platforms right now, is going to get killed by August, a few months before the US elections. You know why? Because that is the trail that will show you what will have happened. Data is everything. And the fact that journalists don't have it – why are we not asking for it?

What can media organizations and civil society do to put more pressure on governments, on the UN system?

Well, I think the first is organizing ourselves: Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. How many news heads have sat down and talked about that? For example, in Brazil, they're starting to organize themselves so that the negotiations with tech companies are done collaboratively.

We grew up in an age where every newsroom negotiates on its own, and that's a point of pride. But I think what we need to realize is that all news organizations are on the same side.

There are only two sides here: facts or fiction. Fiction tends to get more money for the tech, and so once I think we realize that, then hopefully we come together and begin to shift. As it stands right now, it's easy to pick us off. And it's the digital news sites that will go down first.

The Global Digital Compact also includes principles on artificial intelligence. Given developments are moving so fast, how effective can AI governance be?

I think it's never too late to jump in, but the problem is: Where does the Global Digital Compact have teeth?

Berlaymont building of the European Commission in Brussels

With the Digital Services Act, the Digital Markets Act and the AI Act, the EU has won the race of the turtles, says Maria Ressa.

The EU has teeth. Even though it won the race of the turtles, it does have teeth. And then what did the tech companies do? They leapfrogged over it. Take the United States. Right now, there's several cases that have been filed. But these legal cases take too long. The attorneys general of the states are the ones doing it but there's now a movement inside the Council for Responsible Social Media to sunset Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. If that happens, that means that the tech companies are going to be responsible for what they distribute. That's a very different thing, because they then get treated like us, like publishers. Which means hopefully the lies will be diminished.

Where else should we push for putting information integrity on the agenda?

With the UN, I'm learning a lot about a process that is inclusive yet must move faster. When we met with Secretary-General Guterres, I saw the weight of the world on his shoulders. Perhaps it is so unweary because the values of the Member States are completely different.

This is why I look forward to something like the G20, for example. Brazil is leading the G20 now and they put information integrity on the agenda very strongly.

Another way forward would be the Global Declaration on Information Integrity, which is led by the Netherlands and Canada. I was in New York to help kick that off. I'm almost everywhere where there's information integrity. Why do we need another declaration? There is a good reason why: There are 38 countries who have the same values. Then you push forward. You should push on that front.

People might say we are all digital citizens. We all need to work on tackling disinformation, but people may forget that it takes journalism in these processes.

I think journalists are the ones that push for accountability. We're not diplomats. And that's why you need to have us at the table.


Interview: Evelin Meier, Jan Lublinski

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